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'Every day, I look out and wonder if I'll be tumbling down.' : Builder Braces for Storm of Protest

January 24, 1987|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Workmen constructing a Studio City office building are successfully holding back a 100-foot slope that towers above.

But warding off the avalanche of complaints from hillside homeowners has turned out to be another matter.

Work crews are taking a 100-foot bite out of a steep hillside next to Fairway Avenue near Ventura Boulevard to make room for a $4.3-million, three-story office project. Fairway Avenue is just east of Coldwater Canyon Avenue.

As workers excavate, they are erecting a heavily braced retaining wall 55 feet tall and 175 feet long designed to prevent the remaining slope from collapsing.

Neighbors' Complaints

Residents who live on the hillside above the unusual wall contend that the project is undermining neighborhood ambiance, if not their physical safety.

"Every day, I look out and wonder if I'll be tumbling down," said Debra Bernuth, whose home overlooks the deep excavation. "If that wall goes, it will be quite a catastrophe. We'll be sitting on top of Ventura Boulevard."

A worse catastrophe would be if the wall holds, and the office building is constructed, neighbor Farrell Bennett said.

"It shouldn't be built in a residential area," Bennett said. "If that sucker goes through, its traffic will be dangerous as hell for all of us. It's a mess."

The dispute is an unusual twist on the pattern of homeowner-developer fights that have flared in recent years along Ventura Boulevard. In this case, the hillside homes would tower over the boulevard office building, instead of the opposite.

Address in Question

Homeowners argue that the project is being built on narrow, meandering Fairway Avenue, despite its building permit listing a Ventura Boulevard address as the site.

They worry that cars coming and going from the building's 158-space underground parking lot will have to pull onto Fairway before making a difficult turn onto Ventura, where approaching cars are difficult to see because of a hill and a curve.

Los Angeles city officials say they have spent hours dealing with homeowners' complaints since the retaining wall's excavation and construction was started in September.

Residents at first feared that the project was being illegally built when city officials could not find any building permit on file for Fairway Avenue.

Once the permit was located under its Ventura Boulevard address, residents questioned the building's height and the lot's zoning.

"People think it's going to be an over-height building," said Lou Robins, assistant city Building and Safety Department manager for the San Fernando Valley. "They want to know if Proposition U is going to stop it."

Gilda Haas, an aide to City Councilman Michael Woo who specializes in land-use issues, said she called for a review of the project's plans when it was clear that homeowners "were really upset."

But Haas said the proposed offices meet the provisions of the growth-control measure--barely. The planned building will have 38,590 square feet of space. Proposition U allows 38,614 square feet at the site, she said.

Zoning Issue Clouded

The zoning question is somewhat murkier.

Haas said the office site apparently is zoned for commercial use. Such a designation allows development without public hearings or special City Council approval.

But one of the two city permits issued for the project says the site contains both commercial and residential designations, although an accompanying site map fails to pinpoint the part of the lot that is residential.

"We can make them put the hill back the way it was if it's really R-1," homeowner Bennett said, referring to the residential zoning designation.

If that sounds like an idle boast, it isn't.

In 1980, Studio City residents successfully blocked construction of an 11-story office building on the same site, even though preliminary excavation on the hill had begun.

The developer of that project eventually agreed to reduce its height to six stories after homeowners went to court. A short time later, City Council enacted a temporary moratorium on high-rise construction in Studio City.

Plans Were Dropped

After that, the developer dropped his construction plans and filled in the excavation.

Replacing the 35,000 cubic yards of earth that have been removed from the hillside this time was the last thing on the minds of workers at the construction site this week.

"It's going to be a very elegant development," contractor Ernest Kossacoff said. "I don't cease to be amazed by what we're doing. It looks right now like the California Aqueduct."

Representatives for the developer, Venway Properties of Sherman Oaks, were unavailable for comment.

The man in charge of building the elaborate retaining wall said the 25,000 tons of pipe used for bracing, which gives the site its aqueduct look, will be removed once the offices are built next to the wall.

"That slope is better than it was before," said Buster Montank, earthwork coordinator for Shoring Engineers, the wall's builder.

"The guy who lives up above it ought to be the happiest guy in town."

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